The Internet of Things. Smart houses. Home automation. Call it what you like, there’s lots of buzz surrounding these topics. I’ve been a home automation fan for some time, so when I was asked if I’d share my thoughts on the topic, I quickly agreed.

Home automation: Where to begin?

Let’s start with definitions. According to Wikipedia, The Internet of Things (IoT) is a phrase coined in 1999 which refers “the network of physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity—that enables these objects to collect and exchange data. The IoT allows objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit…” That’s a real mouthful.

My definition is simply “devices, other than computers, which are connected to the internet for nearly any reason.” So, if your car sends you a text telling you it’s time for an oil change – your car is one of those things. If your blood pressure cuff automatically sends data to your doctor, it’s one of those things. If a sensor on your dog’s collar helps you track Fido when he runs away, that sensor is one of those things. Likewise, a piece of luggage that you can track via GPS (so you can find it even though the airlines can’t), is one of those things. These are real examples and there are, literally, thousands more.

Image: Home automation app on a smart phone
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We call these things “smart devices.” For the sake of this discussion, if you can control it, or communicate with it via your phone, it’s a smart device.

“Home automation” is a subset of The Internet of Things – it refers to things that help you around the house. “Smart houses” are houses which have home automation solutions installed. This article is about Home automation or smart houses.

Why would I bother?

There’s a geeky answer to that – it’s cool. Your friends will be impressed.

But there are far more practical answers.

  • Do you stumble for a light in the middle of the night? Not with a smart house.
  • Have you ever driven away and forgotten to close the garage door? No problem – it’ll close itself.
  • Does your significant other always forget to lock the door (like mine does)? They’ll lock themselves.
  • Is your lawn getting watered while it’s raining? That doesn’t happen at a smart house.
  • Are you running your air conditioner without realizing the window upstairs is open? You’d know in a smart house.
  • Did your child (or elderly parent) leave their bedroom in the middle of the night and not return after a few minutes? You could be notified so you could check to make sure everyone is okay.
  • Want to get a text if the bathtub is overflowing? Or better yet, wouldn’t it be great if the water automatically turned off if the washing machine starts overflowing? Well, that can happen.

These are just a few of the examples of things that happen in my house. And they can happen in yours too.

A quick look back

Home automation isn’t new. There have been examples for years. I remember drooling over lights that would turn themselves on and off when people came or left rooms. Or better yet, lights would come on at the exact brightness throughout the house for the party you’re throwing – with just the press of one button. Lutron came out with their “NeTwork” lighting system in 1990.

But those early systems were often very expensive and required rewiring the house. So, as much as I loved the idea, I never installed one. I looked often. I picked up brochures at every home improvement show I wandered through. But, nope.

Image: Smart House - Living Room
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But more recently?

Well, things have changed a lot since then. There are hundreds (or thousands) of different devices you can install one at a time and they all connect wirelessly. Devices even interact with each other even if they come from different manufacturers. For instance:

  • Your BMW can turn on your Lifx lightbulbs as you approach your driveway.
  • Your Nest (Google) thermostat can turn on the heat when you get out of bed because of a SmartThings motion sensor.
  • Your Phillips Hue lights throughout the house can change to blue when your GE water sensor detects a leak.

And all these things can be controlled with one app on your phone.

So, where do you start?

We’ll talk about that in my next article.

In the interim, check out this explainer video from our friends at Common Craft. And, if you’ve got stories about your experiences with home automation and the IoT, share them in the comments section below.